Protecting the unique, high-altitude vegetation of Ladakh
By Phuntsog Dolma
I have always marvelled at the diverse flora of Ladakh and its ability to thrive in such harsh conditions. Ladakh is a unique, fragile high-altitude cold desert in the rain shadow region of the Himalaya. Though the landscape may seem barren to the untrained eye, Ladakh’s arid ecology supports a flourishing diversity of flora, fauna and avifauna. For millennia, the region has remained an isolated, self-reliant ecosystem, thriving along with its people, whose traditions, festivals, folklores and unique agro-economy continue to be supported by its glacio-fluvial sediments. Human communities prosper here because of the inter-connectedness between themselves and with their surroundings. Centuries of knowledge, passed down from generation to generation enables them to thrive on high-altitude native edible plants, for food and medicine. Some species of flora, such as several Artemesia sp., are globally recognised for their proven role in traditional medicine.
This woolly catmint Nepeta floccosa manages to take sustenance on a rocky slope near a valley in Ladakh. The author recollects collecting wild plants as a child, including this beautiful purple herb, locally known as shalmagok. Photo: Karma Sonam.
But in the past few decades, Ladakhis have had to deal with changes in their environment. Rain is more frequent, as is erosion. The implications of these fluctuations on floral diversity remain understated. As a Ladakhi I feel
a vital need to share the significance of and the vulnerability of our highly under-studied flora.
A decade-long study published in 2020 listed over 1,085 species of flowering plants. Over a thousand of these are herbs, with the rest constituting trees, shrubs and climbers. I had learned from my grandparents the value of many intriguing plants.
In the past decade, I have witnessed far too many changes that are transforming Ladakh’s ecology and plant diversity. The major threats to vegetation include unrestricted uprooting and overexploitation for food, fuel, fodder and medicine. Herbalists often indulge in the unsystematic collection of medicinal plants and end up uprooting entire plants including Saussurea lappa, Dactylorhiza hatagirea, Aconitum violaceum, A. heterophyllum and Podophyllum hexandrum.
The Flinders rose Capparis spinosa bears fleshy leaves and striking, large pinkish-white flowers used in local dishes such as kabra-tsotma. Photo: Dorjey Konchok.
Habitat destruction for the construction of roads, buildings and military settlements compound the over-exploitation of plants in local rituals and customs. And, when combined with the adverse impacts of climate change, virtually all Ladakhi plants are in trouble. During Losar, the local new year, the leaves of the juniper plant are collected in huge quantities to replace old juniper leaves on Lha-thos, a sacred abode of gods and goddesses.
Tourism is the lifeline of many Ladakhi families, but the establishment of tourist camping sites and trek routes have left measurable, adverse impacts on plants. On top of this we have overgrazing of pastures that affects the growth and density of medicinal herbs and species of vegetation, vital to pasturelands upon which humans and their livestock depend.
The roots of the spiked rhubarb Rheum spiciforme are used as a laxative. Centuries of knowledge passed through generations enabled Ladakhis to thrive on high-altitude, native, edible plants, for food and medicine. Today young people have much less knowledge and appreciation of this heritage and this must change if they are to survive the coming climate crisis that will hit Ladakh harder than most other places in the world. Photo: Karma Sonam.
Clearly conservation measures are called for, but before that we need to explore and document the plant diversity in Ladakh. Many botanists, mostly foreigners, have worked on the taxonomy of the region’s flora. Ironically, however, the local populace, especially the young, have very little knowledge of this heritage. Given the importance of involving local communities in conservation, the challenges we face can best be tackled by making them aware of their incredible natural history, and to train them on plant identification and further exploration. This would create in the youth of Ladakh a sense of ownership towards the vulnerable habitats that sustain them. While floral species estimates are already astounding, the actual number could be much higher, but this will only be established when systematic and robust taxonomy-based botanical surveys are conducted.
Dr. Konchok Dorjey, professor of botany at EJM College, suggests two ways forward. For in-situ conservation, he recommends the identification of plants and the declaration of plant-diversity hotspots as Protected Area for Plant Conservation (PAPC). He also advises the declaration of woodland areas, including wild juniper forests of Ladakh as Protected Juniper Forests (PJF). Infusing educational institutes and local communities with practical knowledge on ecology and natural history would, in his view, bolster conservation morale and build deep-rooted awareness. For ex-situ conservation, he suggested the establishment of a botanical garden and a ‘Ladakh Plant Conservation Committee’. Collaborative initiatives between research institutes, government agencies and non-profits cannot be compromised on, if efficient conservation strategies are to be employed.
Rheum spiciforme, or lachu, is green when young, but turns reddish-brown on maturity. The fleshy leaves and stems of this robust perennial herb are eaten both raw, or cooked. The plant grows in the Himalaya from Afghanistan to Tibet and J&K. Photo: Karma Sonam.
Howsoever such initiatives take shape, clearly conservation success will only be ours when individuals in all communities are aware of, engaged in and a part of the conservation of the unique, arid ecosystem that has evolved over eons in the cold deserts of Ladakh.
A Flock Supervisor at the Sheep Husbandry Department at Leh, Ladakh, Phunstog Dolma receives funding support from Sanctuary’s Mud on Boots Project, as a Project Leader and is being advised by Munib Khanyari.